The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards are next month, and in its list of nominees is a previous Emmy winner, Jonathan Freeman. Freeman, nominated for his cinematography expertise on all eight episodes of the new Apple TV+ miniseries Defending Jacob, has also worked on programs such as Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire along with films such as Remember Me and The Edge of Love.
Defending Jacob debuted in April with roaring success. Starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell as the Barbers, a family reduced to ashes as the world they knew goes up in flames around them following a murder of teen boy in their small Massachusetts town — a murder their son, Jacob, is accused of committing. Based on the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name by William Landay, Defending Jacob is as much a story about the destruction of a family as it is about a murder, giving the story a more intimate edge than one would expect in the murder/mystery genre.
Bringing the Barber’s story to life onscreen was no easy undertaking. The performances were reliant on actors who could undertake the heavy emotional burden of the spiral these characters took as their new reality unfolded, but that also required a skilled tactician to bring these emotions to life on screen. Cue, Jonathan Freeman. Director of Photography for all eight episodes of the series, he brought an emotional edge to each frame, adding to the intensity and turmoil of this story.
Jonathan Freeman took some time to answer a few of our questions ahead of the big awards next month.
Nerds and Beyond: Since most of our readers are viewers and fans, some aspiring to hold careers in the entertainment industry, can you give some brief insight into the role of the cinematographer on set and the partnership with the director?
Jonathan Freeman: Principally the cinematographer’s role is to help tell the story visually with the director. Some directors are particular about shot design, down to exact lens size. Others like creating shots and aesthetic concepts together when finding the visual language. In all cases, I feel it’s the cinematographer’s responsibility to adjust to the director’s approach. Lighting is the area where cinematographers can make their mark the most. It can have an influential impression on a film or TV show — setting the mood and tone.
Nerds and Beyond: What drew you to Defending Jacob?
Jonathan: Numerous things. Firstly, I was a great admirer of Morten Tyldum’s films. We had the opportunity to work together on a commercial a couple of years prior and I hoped one day to work together again on a long-form project. Morten sent me the first five scripts, and Mark Bomback’s writing so enthralled me that I read all of them in one sitting. It was such an internal piece that would rely heavily on nuanced performances. When Morten mentioned the cast — Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell — I was hooked.
Nerds and Beyond: I know you’ve done some work on Game of Thrones throughout the years. Is there a big difference in shooting a show like Defending Jacob in comparison to a project needing more visual effects like Game of Thrones?
Jonathan: There is a lot more pre-planning and collaboration with the VFX team in telling the story on a project like Game of Thrones. You can’t improvise, unless you’re forced to, due to uncontrollable events like bad weather or uncooperative wolves. Otherwise, it is meticulously planned out. We did carefully plan the climactic ending for Defending Jacob (no spoilers here), with our brilliant VFX team from Double Negative. This required concept work I did with Morten, storyboards, pre-visualization, and finally, a shot-for-shot location shoot. But for the most part, the approach was traditional, planning out key shots and transitions, but allowing room to shot plan some scenes after we blocked with the actors.
Nerds and Beyond: You were the cinematographer on all eight episodes of the series. Is there a sort of ease about being involved in a series from start to finish versus one or two episodes in a season?
Jonathan: Even though I was involved early with the look of some series like GOT, it’s still a collaboration between multiple cinematographers. It’s a shared vision and one that gets more defined season after season. A limited series, like Defending Jacob, feels much more like shooting a movie. You’re able to complete the arc photographically — shooting the beginning, middle, and end. That said, like with some films, there are other people who can help complete it. We were very fortunate to have a phenomenal cinematographer step in for me near the end of the shoot. Pål Ulvik Rokseth had worked with Morten on commercials in Norway and has an exquisite signature style, yet he masterfully matched the style I had established. For a moment, there are scenes where I question whether I shot it or he did. I’m very grateful to him for maintaining the look.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you and director Morten Tyldum go about creating and collaborating on the visual strategy for the show?
Jonathan: We sat together and read all the scripts together chronologically. We discussed how we might cover each scene, including key shots, motifs, and transitions. We had a deal — if either one of us referenced a scene from a film, we had to stop, find the clip, and watch it together. It added time but was inspiring, and it helped formulate a visual language.
Nerds and Beyond: Which films, series, or colleague’s work did you reference for inspiration or influence for Defending Jacob?
Jonathan: We referenced films like Michael Clayton, Mystic River, Seven, and the films of Bergman and Polanski. Morten wanted the audience to experience the story through the characters’ eyes, so our strongest references were films with a subjective sensibility.
Nerds and Beyond: In other interviews with cast and showrunners, they detailed that the series shot like an 8-hour movie, jumping from episode to episode all within a day’s work.
Jonathan: We might be shooting a scene for episode one in the morning and move to a scene from the last episode in the afternoon. Morten’s capacity for retaining every detail of the entire drama was phenomenal — over 450 pages worth. He was not only able to remind everyone where we were coming from, or going to, but also recall the smallest character arc details for the actors to consider.
Nerds and Beyond: Were there any particular challenges that arose from this method?
Jonathan: I think the biggest challenge was calibrating each scene’s essence even if we hadn’t shot the scenes in between. It happens in all projects, but eight hours of material stretches it further. I think it was most challenging for the actors, but they were brilliant at being true to their characters’ journeys.
Nerds and Beyond: The grand jury scenes with Andy and Neal are different than the aspect of the show surrounding the murder trial; they’re almost haunting as we experience basically the ghost of who Andy Barber used to be. How did you set up the framing to convey such a different mood and ambience?
Jonathan: I’m glad you noticed this. It was a marathon for the actors. Over 50 pages of dialogue to remember and perform, spread over eight episodes. And only three days to shoot. Chris and Pablo killed it. It was essential to be inside the head of Andy. He was the source of our story; everything was revealed through these moments with him. We chose to shoot some close-ups of Andy non-conventionally, inches higher than his eye-line. It created an intimate effect. We used this device in other scenes as well, to get inside a character’s perspective. But Chris’ performance is so hauntingly still, it draws you inward.
Nerds and Beyond: Are they any particular shots in Defending Jacob that you’re especially proud or fond of?
Jonathan: There isn’t particularly one shot I’m proud of, but I am proud that after hours and hours of reading scripts, watching clips, and coming up with a plan, Morten and I stuck with it — never wavering from it. Usually, those explorations are just that — ideas to grasp onto occasionally. But being committed to POV, I think, worked in the end. It complimented the internal intensity that was on the page.
Nerds and Beyond: Finally, any advice to aspiring cinematographers?
Jonathan: Shoot, shoot, shoot. You can study cinematography as much as you want, but you learn by shooting — and making mistakes. When I started, there was only film, and it was expensive. It is now easier, more than ever, to shoot content and deliver it for a professional platform.
Defending Jacob is currently streaming in its entirety on Apple TV+. You can watch the Emmy’s on ABC Sunday, September 20 at 8 p.m. ET to see if Jonathan and the Defending Jacob team take home the gold!
Want more Defending Jacob news? Check out our exclusive interview with star Pablo Schreiber.